Part 2: Advocates Phi Nguyen and Han Pham
By Jackie Yen
In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month 2022, we have invited Lola member, storyteller, and creative Jackie Yen to contribute an interview and photo series celebrating Atlanta’s Asian American womxn. These incredible humans are founders, small business owners, and leaders of purpose-driven organizations. Their inspiring stories will be posted throughout the month of May.
In our second post, we celebrate Han Pham and Phi Nguyen—two women who are fighting to make Georgia and the Southeast better places to live using civic engagement and policy advocacy. They talk to us about leadership, the power of communities, and books that make them feel seen.
Building Communities and a Mind Like a Computer
Han photographed at The Lola wearing jade earrings from AAPI-owned small business Lucky Starfruit Co.
Han Pham lives on a microfarm in Decatur with her husband, two children, and their half a million honeybees. She is thrilled to be the new Executive Director of Her Term, a powerhouse that gets women elected to Georgia public office. She also organized Decatur’s first Lunar New Year Celebration.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in St.Paul, Minnesota. My parents are Vietnamese refugees who grew up with nothing during a war. They ingrained in me the idea that life is a gift to be celebrated.
Tell us about your leadership journey.
I went to an elementary school for gifted children, and every morning we recited the mantra, “We are a multi-cultural, gender, disability-fair institution.” That taught me a mindset of acceptance and empathy. I try to replicate that type of welcoming community that’s full of love wherever I can.
The next phase of my life was a lot of searching and not really belonging. I hated law school. I dropped out of a PhD program I also hated and worked a corporate job that left me feeling empty. Where I finally found fulfillment and meaning was through volunteering and building communities in education and for women. For example, I am Chair of the Board of a middle school for refugee girls.
What’s a book that you love and makes you feel seen?
I devoured The Kiss Quotient, a novel with an autistic heroine. The author, Helen Hoang, is herself on the spectrum, which she discovered after her daughter’s autism was diagnosed and through her research for the book. I started bawling while reading about that in her author’s note because I had never felt so seen. I hadn’t thought of myself as on the spectrum before, and since then I’ve read more about how autism presents differently in women. On top of all that, she is also Vietnamese, grew up in Minnesota, and has refugee parents!
Wow, what an amazing discovery. What aspects of autism do you recognize in yourself?
My mind is like a computer program. I take inputs and add them to the library, and when I need to figure out how to react or respond, I search the library. I feel complete and utter fear when I have no precedents, and extreme anger when things don’t follow the rules. I can’t imagine something I’ve never seen. For example, I love to draw and paint, but I can only copy.
How does it feel when you tell people about your autism?
To be clear, I haven’t been diagnosed so I don’t tell people that I am autistic. Some people have been dismissive, telling me that I don’t match what they see as autism. I’ve found it’s not worth my energy to explain how their perception of autism is biased towards the male form of it. I’ve honestly stopped bringing it up.
That sounds frustrating.
Yes, but it’s enough to just better understand myself—to have answers for why I sometimes feel like an alien dropped onto this planet. It felt euphoric when a friend and I realized we likely became friends because we share this weirdness that only we understand. And reading books with lead characters who are on the spectrum makes me happy!
Southern Roots and Sensitivity as a Strength
Phi photographed near her home in Kirkwood.
Phi Nguyen brings savvy creativity to tackling social justice issues as the Executive Director of the Atlanta Chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. She uses both humor and legal advocacy to protect and expand the civil rights of AAPI and other marginalized communities in Georgia and the Southeast. Phi lives in Kirkwood and loves Mexican food.
Tell us your origin story!
I’m Vietnamese American, a woman of color, a daughter of refugees, and one of five sisters. I grew up in Georgia and am proud of my Southern roots—despite the deep and ugly history of entrenched racism here. Because alongside the legacy of white supremacy, there is also a legacy of beauty, power, love, joy, and resilience in the South.
You’ve said that building a social movement is about building relationships. How do you personally do this?
I’m a very sensitive person. That trait wasn’t considered a strength when I was a trial lawyer, and it’s generally not valued in executive leadership. But now I see that my sensitivity makes me a better leader because I can build deep, strong connections with people.
You’ve accomplished so much for AAPI voter rights, turnout, and census representation. What are you most proud of?
That’s a hard question. Rather than any particular outcome, I’d say I’m proud of the times I’ve navigated high-stakes decisions with integrity and courage. Also, when I’ve empowered other leaders in our community, especially other women of color. And I convinced my mom to vote for the very first time in 2016—I’ll always be proud of that!
How do you find support, either for yourself personally or for your organization?
My four sisters are my OG ride or dies. I know I can count on them for anything. My partner is also extremely supportive. He makes sure I don’t forget to eat, always cheers me on, and is my thought partner around complex work situations. We joke that he’s my most useful yet most wildly underpaid consultant. I’m also lucky to have a very strong personal and professional support system that is mostly made up of women of color.
What’s a book, show, or movie you love and makes you feel seen?
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri will always hold a special place in my heart because it’s one of the first books that I read where I thought, “Holy shit, this is so relatable.” It made me feel seen. Before that, I had only read novels about white prep school kids in New England.
I’ve since discovered books that are even more culturally resonant to me, like books about actual second-generation Vietnamese Americans! And I now get annoyed at Gogol [the main character in The Namesake] whenever I re-read the book.
Last amazing thing you ate in Atlanta?
And favorite place to unwind?
Thank you so much Han and Phi! You are truly inspiring!
Stay tuned for more posts this month celebrating Atlanta’s Asian American womxn.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.